Our First in a Series of Interviews with Bocuse d’Or USA Team Members as They Prepare for the International Culinary Competition
[Ed. Note: Periodically throughout 2016, we’ll check in with key figures from the Bocuse d’Or USA team that will compete in Lyon in January 2017. The team operates under the auspices and support of Ment’or BKB, the foundation founded and led by Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, and Jérôme Bocuse. – A.F.]
In December, four teams competed at The Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada, for the opportunity to represent the United States at the Bocuse d’Or in Lyon, France, in 2017, with a duo from Per Se–candidate Mathew Peters and commis Harrison Turone–emerging triumphant. It’s a year of unprecedented expectations of the United States in the international competition because chef-candidate Philip Tessier and commis Skylar Stover brought home a silver medal for the Stars and Stripes in 2015, the first time the US made it to the coveted podium. This year, 2015 coach (and onetime competitor) Gavin Kaysen will, as Team USA Vice President, assume an advisory role while Philip Tessier will coach the team.
Having written a book about the Bocuse d’Or, I have a special interest in this competition, and I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be checking in with core Bocuse d’Or USA participants periodically over the next year and sharing those interviews here on Toqueland. The first is a conversation with Philip Tessier and Gavin Kaysen, recorded shortly after the team was selected in late December:
[Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
FRIEDMAN: Let’s get right to the emotion of the coming year: There’s one spot above silver and 22 spots below it. Professional athletes who reach #1 in the world speak about the feeling of having a target on their back and the new pressures it creates. Now that you have a team selected, how daunting is the prospect of getting ready for battle following on the silver medal in 2015?
TESSIER: We’ve always had the same kind of pressure on ourselves. Even when we competed last year, we felt like we had to get on the podium. We had to win. There are too many things out of your control when you get there that can turn things one way or the other, so there’s a mind game you don’t want to play. Having won silver and coming back for gold, it’s the same mentality: We’re going to do the best we can and compete against ourselves. The most important thing for Gavin and me is to remove the pressure from the candidate. There are going to be cameras and things we have to deal with … so part of our role is to protect the team from external forces that might be there.
KAYSEN: I don’t believe that the pressure is more now than then, but the number of eyes on us will be bigger. When Timmy [Hollingsworth, who competed for the USA in 2009] went, Daniel and Thomas had just jumped on and we got sixth place and everybody let out a gasp. In many respects, every year after that we diminished the attention because we weren’t placing higher. Now there’s attention, but we we’re more ready for it. We’ve been on the podium, with coaches who have been on board for more than three cycles.
FRIEDMAN: That’s a great point for people who know how this competition works: Historically, one of the deficiencies of the US squad is that we’ve never had a bench of advisors who themselves had made it to the podium in Lyon. Now we have that person in Phil. How do you think that will influence the process? Specifically, how will you two go about weaving your knowledge into Matt’s personal vision for what he wants to cook and present in the competition?
TESSIER: First of all, we have developed personal relationships with the candidates over the last five months. [Tessier engaged in several pre-competition sessions with the teams who competed in Las Vegas, to advise them and set them up for success.] The goal for us approaching the US competition was giving them all the resources we could, so they’d know how it works. The extraordinary thing we have now is that these guys know the process to a degree and have been successful. The competition we had [in December] was extraordinary; the quality of the food and individuals was at a high level. Matt’s a very creative chef. Having him in this position is exciting because he’s going to bring a modern, current, and appropriately creative approach to the competitoin, not a lot of old habbits we have to retrain. Like myself, he has never been a competitive chef; he’s looking to me and Gavin to bring organization and structure to how we approach the competition. I feel like it’s a really good relationship in terms of how it’s set up.
KAYSEN: Every candidate is different so we have to adjust, and also the food is different. But there’s a lot we can pull from in terms of what the team has been through. Now we have a lot of people who have the DNA of the competition in their body.
TESSIER: This thing works [now]. We’ve got all the files from [past candidates] Richard [Rosendale] and James [Kent]. Now the candidate can focus on the food and design and rely on that strong foundation.
FRIEDMAN: What is the first order of business for the team? What does January and February look like?
TESSIER: The short-term goal for us is to give Matt a break. These guys have been killing themselves for four months. We want to let them rest and come back with some fresh perspective. The thing that takes the most time to develop and shape is what we call “the story” – what’s the box we’re going to build this food inside? The second part of that is working with Martin [Kastner, of Crucial Detail, who designed the team’s serving pieces in 2015]; he’s an extraordinary invidual but like any creative process it takes time to develop an idea. The first time I put any food on a platter was in France. We obviously had prototypes but we would like to get to that point sooner. Probably our first meeting with the board to decide what our direction will be will be in February. [Update: It was recently decided that chef-candidate Peters will relocate to Yountville for training in April; commis Turone will follow a month or two later.]
FRIEDMAN: What will the working relationship be like between you guys?
KAYSEN: My role is really going to be helping to guide and mentor Phil through the process of coaching. The schedule and putting all that in place and the day-to-day grind of coaching is going to be Phil’s responisblity. Getting the team what they need is going to be my responsibility. I’m here to help in a way that we never really had before … my support staff was Daniel, Thomas, and Jérôme, and they are all very great, but also very, very busy people. They were always there, but Phil and I have been through the trenches enough now that we speak the same language.
FRIEDMAN: Are all the main advisors from last year back? Are there any new characters on the scene?
TESSIER: We wanted to wait and see who the candidate was before selecting the [extended family of advisory] coaches. Nothing is really official. One of the guys who is confirmed is Robert Sulatycky, who offered great support for us last year even in short collaboration. He competed for Canada, taking fourth place, but he’s not affiliated with Canada anymore. He’s in Napa. I didn’t have somebody close by me, so I was trying to get that as a piece for them. We will probably bring in people on an individual basis but not necessarily throughout the year. One thing we learned is that, by design or default, we had a good group [but they have other commitments as well]. Gabriel [Kreuther] has a restaurant now so he’s super busy, so it makes sense to give him time to focus on that. One of the things on our mind is how do we reach out to our peers and chefs around the industry who we want to have involved? When there are too many voices it clouds the vision a little bit, but you do want those voices there to offer different perspectives along the way. It’s something we’re still marinating on.
FRIEDMAN: It seems like every year has been a learning process. Even with the success, what’s the big lesson from last year as far as what can get better for the US?
KAYSEN: Phil was a special candidate. He understood early on that he was going to be the only person in that box. (That was probably every year, but we didn’t recognize it yet.) There’s a lot of support but at the end of the day, if there was something that had to get done, he had to get it done. He understood that “Everything’s my decision.” He was the same person from when I met him to when he got on that podium. Nothing changed. I watched him have a goal and go for it. We didn’t need to do much other than let him know we were there to support him.
TESSIER: I think for me, when I was selected to be the candidate … it was figuring out, “How does this all work?” Thomas has always been, “We’re the owners and the coaches are the coach. We call the play and you do it.” To Gavin’s point, I misinterpreted that. You are the team and have to do it yourself. It’s not a time to be teaching somebody new techniques. They have to discover how to do what they do best. … The other piece was the internal team, the guys we bring in to help us succeed came in and dedicated five months of their lives to me. [Tessier had a support team who took some of the logistical load off his and his commis Stover’s shoulders.] They allowed me to focus on the food. At one point, I stopped prepping and they did that and took care of all the equipment and rental cars and so on. The candidate has to have a focus on the US as a whole and on this being our effort. At the end of the day it falls on them to drive it forward. The lesson from that will be to focus on the team and making sure they have that support. We had to fight for that a little bit last year and learn the value of it.
FRIEDMAN: Gavin, what’s the quality of competition like since you first got on board? In recent years, a few teams like Great Brittan and Japan have surprised by placing in the top five. It seems like there’s a greater depth of talent and a steeper climb to the top.
KAYSEN: I think it’s absolutely at a higher level. I remember thinking at one point, “How much higher can this get? How can it get any better?” Well, not necessarily better or more complicated, but more refined and more focused, with more of a story and more meaning, not just, “I Googled ‘Bocuse d’Or’ and here’s my platter.” I think the entire process and the amount of work the teams put into every cycle has changed since I started [in 2007]. I mean, it’s December, and we’re talking about something that’s going to happen 13 months from now. Phil and I were gearing up for this when he got off the podium. We sat down with the board about two weeks after that and said, “OK, let’s go to the next level.”